Abbotsford board of education candidates discuss spring break, other issues

Trustee hopefuls respond to questions on parental input and visions for ideal schools.

Incumbent Abbotsford Board of Education trustee Cindy Schafer answers a question at Wednesday evening's all-candidates meeting.

It was the kind of question asked by naive children, or people buying lottery tickets.

“If you had all the money in the world, what three things would you want in our schools?”

But it was one of the most evocative queries put to candidates at the Abbotsford Board of Education all-candidates meeting on Wednesday night, and brought forth some of the key local issues in education.

“Every kid would have breakfast in the morning,” answered Rhonda Pauls, admittedly taken aback by such a broad question, but explaining how improper nutrition can be a barrier to learning.

Her libraries would be full of materials, special education experts would abound, and because children need good adult mentors, she would find a way for all parents to be role models for their children.

Matt Thiessen said there would be more teachers, smaller classrooms, support for special needs children, and he would see the schools go high tech.

“Technology is huge, and having an unlimited budget for iPads or laptops for students in classrooms would be amazing.

Freddy Latham said the ideal schools would be the hub of their neighbourhoods, open from dawn to dusk, providing arts and sports activities, with multi-generational learning.

“And boy, would it have small class sizes,” she added.

There were no rebuttal cards in the meeting’s format, and no point-counterpoint between the candidates. But not all the questions, mostly pitched from the audience of approximately 200 people, were such softballs.

The incumbents were asked why they asked for public input on the length of spring break, and then went against an overwhelming majority of parents who wanted two weeks. How would they uphold the board’s tradition of working with parents?

Shirley Wilson said there are many stakeholders in the system, and parents are one group.

“When we hear from parents as a group, we pay attention,” she said, but added sometimes decisions are not as straightforward as they seem.

John Sutherland noted he was one of two trustees who voted against the majority of trustees whom he felt “ignored parents” on the spring break issue.

“I think that undermines confidence in the board,” Sutherland told the audience. “I’ll continue to do what I did, and that’s listen to you.”

Preet Rai echoed that sentiment, saying if the board does surveys and solicits input, and receives an overwhelming majority position, “we should be listening to that majority.”

“The community has put us in there, and we should be listening,” said Rai.

Cindy Schafer noted that the board allowed for a two-week break, but one that “piggybacked” onto the Easter holidays.

She said the board heard from parents, but noted “the question is actually bigger than whether we like a two-week holiday or not.”

Uultsje De Jong asserted that the provincial government should settle the spring break calendar issue.

Asked about communicating with parents, Latham said the board could be more public in its business.

“We need to be a little bit more open. In-camera (closed meeting) items need to be considered carefully.”

Stan Petersen was asked whether he would support the Social Justice 12 course that was controversial in the Abbotsford district.

“I strongly support educating students on all issues,” he responded.

Schafer and Thiessen were asked for their opinion on the increased distance limits for busing students, meaning more kids walk to school.

Schafer noted staff has held two consultation meetings and will soon bring the issue back to the board table.

Thiessen said busing will always be a cost, but when the board changed the limits, ridership decreased.

“If we’re going to lose money either way, with the surplus that the board has, I would be in favour of going back to the old limits,” he said.

Aeriol Alderking, asked what value she places on the board’s communication with parents, said trustees should visit schools where they should meet with staff, PAC members, and be available to parents.

Asked about what values he would bring to the decision-making process as a trustee, Ralf Landsberger said “I would make my decisions based on proving the best possible education for our students.

Landsberger also said the board must ensure children are protected, not bullied or taunted.

Balbir Gill said came to Abbotsford in 1991, and studied to become a librarian. “Education was important to me then, and it is now too,” he said.

Asked what experience he had with the education system, he noted he has served on PACs for 10 years, including the BC Confederation of PACs.

Twelve of the 15 candidates attended the meeting, with Korky Neufeld, Graham MacDonnell and Arlene Ambrose absent.

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